Experts will tell you that Tuscan food is exceptional because it is based on “fresh ingredients.” Fantastic! What does that mean?
Imagine holding a fresh egg that is still warm from the hen. Hear the distinct snap as you crack that egg and place it on a flat surface. Take in the fresh smell. See the shiny orange (yes, orange) perfectly round, thick yolk that stands about ¾ inch high. Notice the compact and lustrous white of the egg, so very distinct from the yolk. Observe that the entire circumference of the egg is around 4-5 inches. Perfect.
You combine this egg with freshly ground (Italian) flour to make pasta dough. The color of the dough is a vivid gold, the smell of the pasta is enticing and the texture is smooth and firm in your hands.
Toss that pasta into briskly boiling salted water. It retains its shape and easily cooks to an “al dente” (firm in the middle) phase.
Finally, combine your perfectly cooked pasta with your favorite sauce or ragú (that you made using all the freshest possible ingredients). Heaven!
Compare the egg used in this case with that of an egg bought from your local grocery store. Crack it and the shell might crumble into many pieces. Place it on a flat surface; you will often see a pale yellow yolk that blends into the white of the egg. The egg white is runny and quickly spreads all over the surface.
You may, of course, not be able or willing to reach under a hen’s rear end to retrieve a warm egg. The point is, always be meticulous about using the freshest possible ingredients. Learn to read the signs of freshness and quality.
This is how the Tuscans approach cooking – with simplicity, attention to freshness and details and love. This is how my 99-year-old mother still cooks today.
Try this approach, no matter what you are making. This can apply to cooking, sewing, writing, painting or whatever you enjoy. Your outcome is only as good as the attention and love you put into each detailed step of the process, each moment along the way.
And, when your end result is something totally wonderful? Like the Tuscans, share it joyfully with people you love!
Spaghetti with Dungeness crab (printable version)
My grandparents’ first stay in the San Francisco area was between 1912 and 1919. During this time, they were befriended by many other Italian-American families. My grandmother Nonna Assida, who was a wonderful cook and later ran her own restaurant, learned to make spaghetti with Dungeness crab from the wives of Sicilian fisherman.
This dish soon became my family’s traditional Christmas Eve pasta- a tradition that continues to this day. We serve the pasta as the first plate or primo and serve the cooked crab as a main course with a side dish or salad.
For this dish it is important to have the freshest possible crab. Buon appetito!
- One large red onion finely chopped
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- (1) hot chili pepper, sliced or Chile pepper flakes (according to taste)
- 1/2 glass red wine
- 1 large can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed or chopped
- 2 large (2 1/2 pounds each) very fresh Dungeness crabs, preferably live. Clean and break the crab into pieces (or have the store do this for you). The crab should be all broken apart. For example the claws should be in separate pieces. Crack the pieces of crab with a crab or nut cracker.
Cantucci di Prato (Almond cookies)
Biscotti in Italian refers to cookies in general. The word biscotti (biscuits in French and English) means ‘twice cooked’ and refers to the Italian cookies that are now widely sold all over the world.
The city of Prato (a famous textile center near Florence in Tuscany) is famous for its Cantucci or mini biscotti. These are traditionally served at the end of a meal with a small glass of vin santo (Tuscan dessert wine) for dipping. Some people also dip cantucci in their espresso, cappuccino or tea.
This recipe for cantucci is a classic. Our family enjoys these all year long. For the holidays, a brightly wrapped package of home-made cantucci makes a lovely and thoughtful present either on its own or with a small bottle of imported vin santo!
Oh, and if you’re wondering about butter, the classic cantucci are made without butter.
Manila – Florence, Tuscany, Italy (more recipes from Manila’s repertoire)
Recap: My friend Manila is a beautiful, doe-eyed woman who lives in Florence. Her husband owns the Ancre jewelry store near Piazza San Marco which is a favorite boutique of the locals.
Manila has raised her three sons in Florence and has taught pre-school and elementary school for many years. Her dream, however, is to own a catering business.
Manila’s passion for Tuscan cuisine is well-known and she is considered one of the best cooks around. My cousins and I were blown away by a meal Manila cooked entirely based on fresh Tuscan mushrooms. When she smilingly opened her front door and the aromas wafted towards us, it was heavenly. And I will never forget about the bone-in prime rib cooked in the wood-burning oven in her courtyard in downtown Florence.
Following are Manila’s recipe for the Tuscan Mushroom Soup, Chicken Liver Crostini and Chicken Liver Croquettes, all typical Tuscan autumn dishes. Buon appetito!
Note from Serenella: John and I tested the soup and crostini recipes this week-end. We had fun and liked them both.
For the soup, we chose to put it through the blender but it also looked prettty chopped up with the different vegetable colors. The pictures are from our recipe testing experience.